STAR Trauma Program Fills Niche In New Orleans

Kelly Jasper, Daily News-Record

The kids here, they’ve all lost something. “I have an 8-year-old referred to me for depression, anxiety, not sleeping and not eating,” says Nanette Katz, a psychotherapist in New Orleans.

This boy’s home, she explained, was swept away like everything else in the 9th Ward.

What’s more, she says, “his story is typical.”

That was a year and a half ago, when hurricanes first drowned their city.

Slowly, New Orleans is recovering, rebuilding, rebounding – but people need restoration, too, Katz says.

That’s where a group from Eastern Mennonite University hopes to make a difference.

Vesna Hart of EMU's STAR program
Vesna Hart

Vesna Hart spearheads a program created to help youth heal from the trauma in their lives, whatever its source may be.

It’s called Youth STAR because the program branched off EMU’s Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience, a trauma program for adults.

The program’s latest training has focused on the needs of New Orleans. STAR has partnered with local organizations, hosted a youth retreat – and perhaps most importantly – trained others to spread its comprehensive approach to trauma healing, Hart said.

For that, Katz says she’s grateful. She consults with one of those partner organizations. That’s how she knows the needs of these kids. She’s seen the depths of their struggles.

That same boy, she said, also lost his dogs in the storm.

“They drowned. This is what haunts him,” Katz said. He can’t sleep alone; he can’t have lights out.”

Things are no better outside his home. The third-grader is failing math, like 10 others in Katz’s caseload.

The reason? “Math requires a high level of attention that so many of these kids cannot practice,” she said. “I walked into a classroom last week, and there were 8-year-olds sleeping on their desks, sucking their thumbs. ‘Please help them!’ the teacher asked me.”

“I can’t,” Katz replied. She can only see the ones who qualify for Medicaid.

A ‘Healing’ Spirit

There’s hope for these kids, Hart says.

“Trauma happens in all of our lives,” Hart said. “You can’t avoid it. But we can all do something to help.”

Community involvement is a core tenet of the program. “We believe everyone has a role in supporting youth who were traumatized,” Hart said.

At the most recent training, the curriculum was taught to a group of 18, mostly teachers, religious leaders and community workers, said Susan Beck, the marketing manager at EMU’s Center for Justice and Peacebuilding, where STAR began.

The group met twice, once in February and again in March.

For school counselors like Patrick Tubbins, the curriculum revealed hands-on tools suited for the situations he faces working in a New Orleans “recovery school.”

“I always look for tools to help children,” Tubbins said. Those tools include role-playing, artistic expression and conversation. They’re everyday things, but they help, he said.

Katz agreed.

“Listening, just listening to these kids helps,” she said. “The experience of empathy helps the children heal. Their biggest help is their own resilience. It’s amazing how the human spirit can heal.”

Stopping The Cycle

Recovery is happening “very slowly,” Katz said.

Tubbins has seen it at his school, where he counsels 15 youth a day. Bit by bit, he’s seen a few kids open up.

“You could really see the trauma she experienced,” Tubbins said of a teen who lived in the Superdome for a few days.

Too often, though, he says the kids stay silent. “Even though you may not be hearing the stories, we’re in crisis,” he said. “Trauma can be passed from generation to generation. We want to stop the cycle.”

Often, parents don’t know how to help their kids because they’re learning to deal with their own trauma, Katz said.

“Families are very busy rebuilding their homes, dealing with new jobs and new neighborhoods and they don’t have time or emotional resources to deal with their depressed or anxious children,” said Katz, who, like many of her clients, still lives in temporary housing.

“The storm changed everything,” she said. “We are trying to not give up.”